Irecently got a call from my old friend Thivo Nguyen Foster, a former Key West resident who later moved on to Miami. Thivo is one of the most talented people I know. Born in Vietnam and raised in Paris, she is a wonderful, painterly artist but she also does a kind of Japanese sculpture called Nerikomi that has given her unique international recognition. While she was here in town, she was a popular figure and used to show her extraordinary work at the Gingerbread Gallery.
Thivo was also associated with the ceramics department at Florida Keys Community College, where she often worked with Jay Gogin, professor of ceramic art at the college, and his Mud-Pi students. She occasionally took over classes for Gogin. Not one to forget old friends, she still contributes generously to the department. When she called me, she said she was coming to Key West to give a lesson/demonstration at the college and that Jay and Robin Gogin would be serving up a mess of paella they call "mud-pi-ella." Would I like to come?
I never say no to paella. I've often made it when I wanted a really special dish to impress guests. Having invested in two huge paella pans, I would fill them with plenty of good stuff like seafood, chicken, sausage, vegetables, pimentos, sofrito and rice, all suffused with golden saffron threads for color and flavor. Robin Gogin makes hers in a traditional shallow paella pan but sets it over the fire in a large cauldron (see photo).
I recently spoke to Jay Gogin about his paella blast: "My wife Robin and I cook for my students in the continuing education class every Saturday. We choose a different theme every week and usually about 30 people show up. We welcome the public if they want to drop by to join us and see how we work. As long as the doors are open near the fountain plaza at the rear of the college, we're happy to see people who are interested in what we do."
Mud-Pi, in case you wondered, is the oldest student activity group on the campus at the college. Its mission is to raise awareness of ceramics in our community. To this end, they encourage snowbirds to join their classes and they do international exchanges with other countries. For instance, the Gogins are getting ready to welcome four exchangers from Japan in a few days, two ceramics teachers and two students.
"Our biggest event, however, will take place March 31," said Jay, the man with the distinctive exotic beard who is faculty advisor for Mud-Pi. "It's our annual fundraising dinner, and will take place from 4 to 7 p.m. We'll be serving our mud-pi-ella and other food donations. It's $25 per person. We usually get about 300 people and our custom is to allow them to keep the ceramic plate it's served on -- handmade and fired by students at the college."
You'd be wise to get there early but if you arrive too late and the food and ceramic plates are gone, added Gogin, "You'll be served what we still have on a paper plate and given a 'Mud P-i-O-U' for a treat and a plate a couple weeks later." (For more information, call Jay at 909-3223.)
As Robin Gogin will tell you, paella is an excellent dish when you want to feed a really big crowd. She is the eldest of a large family, which has made her pragmatic about throwing her own recipes together for a lot of people. "The paellas I make are rarely the same," she says. "It depends on what I feel like putting into it and what I have on hand."
After talking to the Gogins, I got curious about the origins of paella. Apparently the dish was invented in Valencia in the Catalan part of Spain. For some bizarre reason, it is made only by men there. They cook it over an open fire fueled by orange and pine branches, along with pine cones. This produces an aromatic smoke that infuses the paella. Also, dinner guests traditionally eat directly out of the paellera (the pan). The Spanish obviously see the advantage of making it for a crowd: Juan Galbis, a restaurateur from Valencia, claims to have made the world's largest paella with help from a team of workers on Oct. 2, 2001. His paella fed about 110,000 people and made it into the Guinness Book of World Records.
I have to admit that, as a bride, my own first attempt at making the dish was a dismal failure. That's because I combined all the ingredients in the pan, including raw rice, and put it in the oven. It just wasn't ready on time, and my guests got terribly drunk on wine while we waited ... and waited. The correct way, of course, is to cook it on the stove top until tender, or at least until the rice is al dente. If you like, you can put it in the oven to finish the dish and open mussels, clams or whatever after the rice is done. But the actual cooking should be done over a fire. There are as many recipes for paella as there are Spanish grandmothers. Says Robin Gogin, you can vary it to suit yourself.
Here are a couple recipes for this sumptuous dish. (My thanks to Thivo Nguyen Foster for suggesting this article.)
(This is my favorite paella!)
1/2 pint olive oil
2 oz boneless pork, diced
2 tsp minced garlic
6 oz onions, chopped fine
1 medium tomato, skinned, seeded and chopped
1 small red bell pepper, seeded and cut into thin strips
1 small green bell pepper, seeded and cut into thin strips
1 small yellow bell pepper, seeded and cut into thin strips
32 oz skinless, boneless chicken breasts, cut into chunks
salt and pepper to taste
1 tsp paprika
12 tsp dried rosemary
1/2 tsp dried thyme
1/4 tsp ground cumin
24 oz lobster claws (or use stone crab claws)
24 oz short grain rice
3 cups chicken broth
1/4 tsp saffron (or to taste)
2 chorizo sausages, cooked and cut into chunks
10 uncooked shrimp, peeled and deveined
4 oz peas
4 tbsp capers (optional)
lemon wedges, to garnish
Scrub and debeard the mussels and clams, discarding any that don't close when tapped sharply. Set aside. Heat 1/4 cup of the olive oil in a skillet. Add the pork and brown all sides. Mix in the garlic, onions, tomato and bell peppers, stirring constantly until cooked. Set aside.
In another skillet, heat another 1/4 cup olive oil and cook the chicken until browned on all sides. Season with salt, pepper, paprika, rosemary, thyme and cumin. Transfer the chicken to a plate and set aside.
In the same skillet, cook the lobster claws over high heat for several minutes until shells turns pink. (If using cooked stone crab, add it at the end, just to heat up.) Set the skillet aside.
Preheat the oven to 200°. Heat 4 tablespoons olive oil in a skillet and sauté the rice until it's translucent. Pour in the chicken broth and combine well. Add the pork mixture, stirring constantly. Sprinkle in the saffron and continue to stir until well mixed. Allow to simmer until rice is al dente. Transfer the rice into a paella pan.
Mix in the lobster claws, chicken, chorizo sausages, mussels, clams, shrimp, peas and capers, combining well. Bake the paella, uncovered, and on the lowest oven shelf, for around 25 minutes or until all the liquid has been absorbed and the shellfish has opened. Discard any mussels and clams that have failed to open. Cover with a clean tea towel for five to ten minutes.
Serve the paella straight from the pan, garnished with lemon wedges.
(Sangria makes a great accompaniment!)
(This recipe is standardized because Valencians consider it traditional and very much part of their culture)
2 cups olive oil
1 red bell pepper, cut in strips
3/4 chicken, cut into pieces
1/2 rabbit, cut into pieces (or just use the whole chicken)
1/2 tsp sweet paprika
1-1/2 pounds green beans, cut into 1-inch pieces
1-1/2 pounds broad beans, shelled
1/2 tomato, chopped
4-1/2 cups water, or fill up the paella pan to the height of the handles 2 times
2 cups snails, cleaned, fresh or frozen
1-1/4 pounds plus 1-ounce short grain rice
salt and freshly ground pepper
pinch of saffron
sprigs of rosemary, as garnish
Heat 1/4 to 1/2 cup of the oil in a pan. Add the strips of pepper and fry until they start to soften. Remove and reserve for garnish. Fry the chicken and rabbit (if using) at medium heat until golden brown, adding more oil, as necessary. Add paprika half way through to add color to meat. Push meat out to the edges of the pan and add beans and tomatoes in the center, mixing them well. Add 1/2 of the water, making sure to cover the pan until it is 1/2 full. Simmer for approximately 30 minutes until most of the water has evaporated. Add the snails and cook for 5 or 10 minutes.
Add the rice, distributing it evenly over the pan and fry for a few minutes, moving it around in the pan. Add the rest of the water and cook for about 20 minutes. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper. Add a pinch of saffron for color. Once this is done the paella should not be stirred anymore.
For the last 1 to 2 minutes, increase the heat to medium-high until the bottom layer of rice starts to caramelize, creating what Valencians call the socarrat. If the rice starts to burn, remove the pan from the heat immediately.
Garnish paella with the strips of red pepper and the rosemary. Cover the pan and let rest for 5 minutes before serving. (Cook's Note: 1 cup rice to 3 cups water)
Joanna Brady Schmida is a Key West writer whose articles about food appear every Sunday in Solares Hill. Writing as Joanna Brady, she is author of a historical novel about Key West, "The Woman at the Light," to be published by St. Martin's Press in July, 2012. Visit her at www.joannabradysite.com.